Research and Development

In 2 CFR 215 (Circular A-110), we find definitions of research and development (dd):

Research and development means all research activities, both basic and applied, and all development activities that are supported at universities, colleges, and other non-profit institutions.

This first part seems just to gather in terms–basic and applied, development–and restrict them to federal support at nonprofits. But there’s a subtext–all research is lumped together. Frontier research is no different from a clinical trial, from testing, from mating mice. As such, that’s a bit of policy drama in itself. How far we have fallen from Vannevar Bush’s efforts to distinguish the environment for frontier research from that of other forms of activity. Now it just looks like a boring definition that doesn’t say much at all.

Further, research and development point to activities–that is, projects–rather than to insights, intuitions, challenges, theory, data, or directions. The thing that matters is the activity, the project, the statement of work, the performance of a script. These are things that make perfect sense in contracted research but disrupt exploration, following where something leads, even if what’s being followed is an outlier, a magma displacement, so off course it couldn’t possibly be worth it. It’s not that frontier research cannot be categorized as a species of research–it’s just that the properties that matter are not those inherited from the class it has been placed in. Similarly, bears and humans are both mammals, but there are no guide books that discuss what you should do if you happen to encounter a mammal while hiking. (For the challenges of classification, see Borges).

Now the definition turns to making a division between research and development:

‘‘Research’’ is defined as a systematic study directed toward fuller scientific knowledge or understanding of the subject studied.

Sounds perfectly normal, no? But note the qualifiers–“systematic” study, “fuller” knowledge, “of the subject” studied. This is an entirely tame, domesticated vision of research. No research without a “subject”; no activity that’s not “systematic”; nothing that might undo a pile of stinking knowledge with an insight–no, we expect “fuller” knowledge. The assumption that’s baked in is that we are mostly right as it is, and we seek activities that fill out the edges a bit. There is nothing particularly aspiring in all this. It’s a bureaucrat’s happy vision of how to contain research in a procurement contract.

Dictionary definitions–which purport to track usage–are no help either:


Dictionaries just mirror back common usage. They don’t help us do something careful with our words–to have them point in directions we wish to go rather than in the directions we have already been.

The etymology of “research” points to the Old French cerchier, “to search.” The noun is a fossilized verb:


As far as usage is concerned, “research” is way up since 1920, while “experiment” and “discover” are down recently.


Nothing here that captures what Bush wanted–“the free play of free intellects.” “Play” does not show up as a primary concept in federal research contracting, nor in university technology transfer. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.” The definition here of research pegs the activity as systematic, as building on established consensus, as serious stuff that merits federal support. Play–that’s not serious.  No wonder the opposite of play is depression, er, systematic study.

‘‘Development’’ is the systematic use of knowledge and understanding gained from research directed toward the production of useful materials, devices, systems, or methods, including design and development of prototypes and processes.

With “development” we find expression of a linear model of innovation. First, development, too is “systematic.” There is no noodling in development, like there’s no crying in baseball. Development that consists of noodling, messing around, making variants is not serious, not directed, not worthy of federal support.

Furthermore, development takes as its inputs the results of research. Yet one uses those results to develop stuff–one does not develop the results themselves. How very odd. One might expect development could involve all sorts of starting points and not use research results at all. For instance, one might start with observations in the field, or customer comments, or one’s own desire to have something no one happens to make. Why might these not also be sources of knowledge for development? Of course, they are. The definition, here, however, constrains development to be the elaboration of research results for use.

Research leads to development leads to use leads to public benefit–and that there’s the justification for research. It’s rhetoric to prop up why the federal government funds research. It’s a little story for the public, to replace whatever it is that actually does happen, is desired–serendipity, accidents, chasing magma displacements and all. It’s just that contracting officials do not care. They work with the definitions they have, and they have lawyers to keep them working systematically and consistently with the regulations they have.

The river of development leads to an estuary of possibilities:

useful materials, devices, systems, or methods, including design and development of prototypes and processes.

First, whatever the stuff is, it must be “useful.” Without use, what’s the point of development? But especially the definition calls out “prototypes and processes.” It’s an odd selection–development involves the development of prototypes and the development of processes–things and sequences, tools and practices. It’s not clear how any of this actually gets at development. What about plants? What about ideas? Nah.

The list almost but not quite tracks a conventional account of patentable subject matter:

process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.


Well, not quite. And we are concerned only with use, not with “new, useful, and non-obvious.” Development would appear to have to do with inventing, but not quite or necessarily. It is clear, however, that useful things and useful processes especially are the outcomes of development. And research knowledge is expected to contribute. These are things one can count, can have metrics about. Developing an understanding or experience or capability–that’s not at all worthy of federal funding.

There is nothing in this model linking research and development that would go the other way: development, in attempting to do something useful, hits up against things that don’t work as expected, or don’t work at all, or are totally off-topic, and research is the activity that moves away from use to track down just what is going on. This was a standard view of research a century ago in industry labs. Research was what scientists did once engineers had found something they couldn’t do or didn’t have time for.

Or, consider warfarin. A farmer shows up at a university lab with a dead cow and a jug of blood that won’t coagulate. “Tell me why my cows are dying when they eat sweet clover hay.” So researchers go to work. They isolate a compound. Then they mess around and create a hundred variations. Then they figure out how to use one of the variations to make rats bleed to death–just like the cows, but now without the need for moldy hay. And from that they realize that they have a blood thinner that may have human applications.

They never do figure out how to keep cows from dying or hay from molding or molds from killing cows. Imagine if they had had federal funding. First they would never have been able to stop what they were doing to mess around with cow’s blood. They were agricultural chemists. Second, there would have been no point in messing around creating a bunch more variations. What’s the use in that? What’s the research? What’s systematic? Third, they would not have been credible in proposing to develop rat poisons or adapt rat poisons as blood thinners for use on presidents. They were agricultural chemists. Not doctors.

I don’t see how the definitions of research and development help parse the warfarin narrative. I do see how Bush’s account of the “free play of free intellects” does, however.

And now to back up, 2 CFR 215.2(dd) adds more to the definition:

The term research also includes activities involving the training of individuals in research techniques where such activities utilize the same facilities as other research and development activities and where such activities are not included in the instruction function.

Research includes training in research techniques–another activity. Notice the limitation to “techniques.” Again, odd–perhaps “techniques” is to stand for anything that a researcher might do that would be helpful. Play, for instance. Perhaps that is the primary research technique to be taught. But no, alas, play is rarely so systematic. So perhaps here the definition is expanded to include training that takes the life out of folks and humbles them in the face of their federal obligations.

The training in research techniques is further limited to the “same facilities” as other research and development–the activities that produce useful thingies and doings. And even more so, this training is the leftovers from a different activity–instruction. One might almost think that this extension of research is provided to make it clear that it is not a misuse of federal research funds to teach people “on the job” how to do their work. Well now, I’m relieved for that.

The definitions of research and development set forth here are anything but plain and unremarkable–they stamp a popular ideology regarding research and development into federal regulation. The effect is to imprint all research and development with the expectations of the anchoring–present, but unstated–ideology. Once one has accepted the definitions–as contracting officials often feel constrained to do–the rest follows.


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